The balcony at the front of my aunt’s apartment will always be unfinished and her home will always smell like the permeating sweet of the golden-green Mexican mango.
I climbed the concrete steps to the screen door of her apartment and rang the bell. The air was dry and the street quiet, the dirt road absorbing the city sounds mere blocks away. The ring seems disproportionately loud. The noontime heat wasn’t enough to make me sweat, but the black vinyl of my 1975 Buick was, the traffic crossing the border into Tijuana, Mexico, was. While I waited on the balcony with no handrail, avoiding the trecherous ledge, I glanced across the street at the other duplexes, their heavily adorned iron gates painted a variety of whites and blacks, their front gardens untamed masses of green, freckled with sunflowers and hibiscus flowers.
A deep breath soothed me a little, the knowledge of the panaderia a few houses down tempting me to take a walk to see the young girls who worked behind the counter selling pan dulce. They were as much a part of Tijuana culture as anything else. A dog’s relentless bark however really told me I was home one more time.
Tía Rita reached the door and opened it. She was a whirlwind of chirping Spanish and soulful laughter and like the storm she seemed, she swept me easily into her arms, squeezing tightly and making me feel small and insignificant. She released me, cupping my cheeks in her warm onion-smelling hands and narrowing her eyes, her face full of curiosity or suspicion or questions, because I’d surprised her.
“What are you doing here so far from Los Angeles, my daughter?”
Although I wasn’t her child, she called me that because she loved me like one. She practically raised me. Perhaps it felt that way more than it was actually so – perhaps she simply knew me in a way only a mother knows a daughter.
“Who is the bastard and what did he do?”
I opened my mouth to speak, to deny it, to say I just wanted to see her. Nothing came out other than a broken sound, an audible crumpling of my heart. I adjusted my sunglasses and shut my eyes, shaking my head and pursing my lips, pressing them tightly to keep everything inside. It had never been my intention to tell tales of agony. I’d planned on simply enjoying my aunt, absorbing her bravery and impenetrability. I needed it.
“No, no, no,” she said, “Stop it. Enough.”
She held me again in her arms, her clothes the scent of a flowery perfume, one she’d worn forever, a repeating gift from her unofficial lover, Señor Salvador.
“Men are peanuts to be shelled,” she whispered. “Salted, eaten.”
The walls of her place were adorned with portraits of Jesus and Mary and her mother, the three occupying spots on the wall, equidistant from one another, all at the same level. The coffee table and couches were covered with handmade lace. The colors of her apartment were muted, subtle. The complete opposite of my Tía. She was over 60 and she’d never been married. She never let that moral barrier stop her from enjoying her life in every way a woman can enjoy her life. So contagious was her goodness and daring everyone who was important in Tijuana knew her. She needed a permit to add a room to her apartment building? The mayor of the city pushed it through, high priority. She had a friend who had a run-in with law enforcement? The Chief of Police clarified the trouble, arranged the District Attorney see things more in favor of the law-breaker. She had problems with thugs on the street? Señor Jesus De Moreno, a person of questionable papers, saw to the clean-up.
My aunt put a pot on the stove to make percolated coffee and took two bowls from her cupboard, placing them on the green-flowered tile counter. Using a large stainless-steel spoon, she filled the bowls with albondiga soup. I didn’t want to tell her she was wasting her time. I could not eat the wonderful rice meatballs in chicken and vegetable broth – my hurts would not let me speak, much less eat.
While she had her lunch, while she drank from her coffee cup, she saw my untouched meal, my hands folded on my lap, my sunglasses still covering up my weeping. She wiped her hands on her apron and lay her hand gently on my arm, repeating an old Mexican saying, “They say the devil knows everything not from being the devil, but because he’s old.” She’s telling me she knows it all, that there is no story unfamiliar.
She smiled at me and took more sips from the coffee. I sniffled and planned my days ahead in my mind. I would sleep in her bed. I’d be treated to music at night coming from her record player. I’d hear her talking on the telephone or to a neighbor through her window. I’d hear the city late at night. I’d remember my years of living here.
“Your Tío Nestor has moved to Mexico City like he always wanted. The good thing is he’ll be living near Lela so he can take care of her. She has not recovered from the accident. He’ll get her on her feet again.”
Lela, my cousin, had lost her home to a fire started by faulty electrical work. She survived the fire with only minor burns, but the building completely collapsed. When she went back to retrieve what was left of her belongings, she fell in the wreckage and broke her leg, severely. The place had been rebuilt – whether it was safe now was not guaranteed. People were contacted, contracts were made, and bribes were paid. Work was done but again, there was no telling. A tremor or another fire would reveal the sanctity of the construction. Nobody really worried about another catastrophe. What happened was in the past. Who’s to say about tomorrow? We were born to die.
“Do you remember my telling you about Señor Jimenez?” She turned momentarily to listen as someone came up the stairs. If the noise stopped after the first flight, the visitor was for the neighbor. The footsteps ceased and so my aunt went on with her recollection.
“He used to serenade me under the moon, at my mother’s house. I pretended to sleep, not getting up, not acknowledging him. She would come out to chase him away, threatening to throw the molcajete at him. And she was strong enough to do it. To not miss. Later, when the night was darker and the coyotes were singing, he would bring a ladder and sneak into my room and we’d make love. Afterwards, he would walk out of my bedroom naked, his clothes in his hands, whistling. Right as the sun was coming up. Right past my mother's room. I think he wanted to get caught. We wanted to get caught. Mamá would have killed him.” She laughed. “We were chickens, my daughter, strutting in front of the farmer who stood there swinging his knife, ready to cut our necks. I don’t know what we were expecting.”
She laughed and sipped more coffee, her gaze dreamy.
“Whatever I wanted, I took,” she said. “What do you want, mi chiquita? Who has slapped your reaching hand?”
I glanced down at my soup, at the rice floating along with cilantro leaves. God has slapped my hand, I think. I tried to pocket more love than what I was entitled to, I tried to keep it, but I got caught like a common thief. My lover had left me with no explanation. My husband had no idea of my pain. My children were shining displays of guilt in the form of innocent neediness. They were little birds in a nest, their mouths open and calling and calling me. And there I was, lying on the ground, still…still. Through my tinted lenses, I looked at my aunt, a woman who went through life wielding a sword rather than hiding behind a shield. She was unapologetic.
“I know what you’re going to say, that I didn’t get hurt.”
Shrugging, I let my voice stir a bit, shudder into motion, “That would not be realistic.”
“Correct. Men have hurt me. I have loved and I have lost, my heart torn to shreds. I have lost love to death.” She paused and I licked my lips and sniffled and adjusted my glasses. I rubbed my arms, feeling the sweater beneath my fingertips. Feeling cold. “I accepted the pain as a part of my life, I saw my pain as nothing in comparison to what my mother experienced, as even less than what my grandmother experienced. I rode a sea of ancient sadness and floated on their tears.”
At that, I lifted my head and took my sunglasses off. With an empathetic chuckle coming from deep inside of her, she rubbed the wetness across my cheeks. She said, “The salt, my daughter, is good for your skin.”